Protests likely were inevitable — and warranted when peaceful — after a Minneapolis police officer’s inexcusable actions on May 25 resulted in the death of George Floyd.
However, just as riots and lootings cannot be condoned, neither can defunding police departments. Yet that’s precisely what a majority of Minneapolis City Council members are pursuing in their market.
“We committed to dismantling policing as we know it in the city of Minneapolis and to rebuild with our community a new model of public safety that actually keeps our community safe,” Lisa Bender, council president, told CNN.
Added Jeremiah Ellison, a city councilman, via Twitter: “We are going to dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department. And when we’re done, we’re not simply gonna glue it back together. We are going to dramatically rethink how we approach public safety and emergency response.”
What “defunding” means varies widely. For many it’s allocating some resources away from policing and toward social services. Other groups are promoting more drastic measures.
Camden, N.J., was one of the nation’s most violent cities when it dissolved its police department in 2012 to combat corruption.
“Now,” according to a CNN report, “the city’s crime rate has dropped by close to half. Officers host outdoor parties for residents and knock on doors to introduce themselves. It’s a radically different Camden than it was even a decade ago.”
Ojii BaBa Madi, Camden resident and a church minister, told CNN the community approach to policing has improved dialogue between police and city leaders and the city does feel safer. But he did not advocate for abolishing police altogether in Camden, a far smaller market than Minneapolis with significantly different demographics.
“I would prefer to nail down some best practices for policing as it should be,” he told CNN.
Adds Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, in a CNN interview: “I don’t believe that you should disband police departments. But I do think that, in cities, in states, we need to look at how we are spending the resources and invest more in our communities.”
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What happened to Floyd in Minneapolis was horrific. And statistics show there is racial bias in some police departments. Christy Lopez, a Georgetown Law School professor and co-director of the school’s Innovative Policing Program, argues that we have come to “over-rely” on law enforcement.
“We ask police to take accident reports, respond to people who have overdosed and arrest, rather than cite, people who might have intentionally or not passed a counterfeit $20 bill,” she writes in a Washington Post piece. “We call police to roust homeless people from corners and doorsteps, resolve verbal squabbles between family members and strangers alike, and arrest children for behavior that once would have been handled as a school disciplinary issue.
“Police themselves often complain about having to ‘do too much,’ including handling social problems for which they are ill-equipped. ... It is clear that we must reimagine the role they play in public safety.”
At the local level, Eau Claire Police Chief Matt Rokus recently outlined steps the department is undertaking to prevent brutality and build trust:
• Hiring the right people.
• Making certain officers are properly trained.
• Accountability and transparency.
• Proper review of use of force situations.
• Engagement with neighborhood and community groups and organizations.
All worthy goals, to be sure. As of Monday, around 2,000 people had signed a petition to accelerate efforts to equip Eau Claire police with body cameras. That’s also a positive.
Should best practices be shared among departments? Yes. Do we need to recognize institutional biases that may exist? Yes. Should we consider allocating some resources to social services that could free up our police to focus on more traditional law enforcement issues? Yes.
But do we need to completely defund police departments? Absolutely not.
It should be remembered that the positive efforts and interactions police conduct every day to serve and protect rarely make the headlines.
Eau Claire and the Chippewa Valley as a whole often fare well in quality-of-life and public safety rankings. That’s thanks, in no small part, to our men and women in blue.
— Liam Marlaire, assistant editor